Crafting Gentleness

Monday, September 25, 2006

What do we mean by gentleness?

I am very interested in the ways that some of us seem to have dismissed gentleness as sometimes not being an appropriate political response to certain circumstances.

I wonder, what does each of us mean when we talk about 'gentleness'?

I know for me it's a way of really confronting the oppressive structures we can find ourselves encountering, and a way of looking after ourselves as we do so.

I spent a lot of last year involved in a toxic situation in my workplace (not my current one, thankfully). It wasn't for me so much an issue of 'oppressors' picking on the 'oppressed' (although there were certain events that would allow for that reading). It seemed to me to be more an 'oppressive situation' in which almost everyone involved in the situation had managed to habituate themselves to some form of self-harm or other-harm or both. The atmosphere was truly toxic, and for quite a while it wore me down. I attempted to start conversations, to raise questions about what was happening, but I got pushed down, first by one level of management, then another, until from the very top I found myself being forcefully pressured to leave, for no particular reason other than I had asked for dialogue and discussion about ways that staff members had related to me that I felt were questionable.

The details aren't all that important, I suppose. What's important to me now is to remember how that situation started to get to me, how I felt myself getting ground down, how I started shrivelling up as I got sucked into the twisted logic that so dominated the thinking, the relationships, and the behaviour of most of those I worked with. I will always remember the day when I was in a staff meeting, folded into myself in the corner, head down, feeling unable to speak because I had reached a point where I felt that speaking up made no difference whatsoever within that context, other than to make things worse for myself and my colleagues.

Remembering gentleness allowed me to stay sane, and I sometimes had fears that I wouldn't. Slowly I dragged myself back, slowly I remembered what possibilities looked like, slowly I remembered that I didn't have to think like the people I had grown to hate and fear from the pit of my stomach. Slowly I remembered that I could speak up, but that it might not yet be the time nor the place to do so. I slowly began to revisit my priorities, to recalibrate what was important to me so that I could then differentiate myself from the dominant attitude of the place, space, and people that I worked with. Slowly I grew more sensitive to the ways that my thinking had been locking me into spirals of anxiety. Slowly I reclaimed my heart as my own and learned to listen again to how it felt to be me. Slowly I learned that I didn't want to dance with those people any more, or more, that I didn't have to. They had danced that way for ages and, anyway, my dance moves didn't go too well with the tunes they were playing. Slowly I learned that fighting them wasn't going to help me, and it wasn't going to help my colleagues. Instead, fighting them simply made me more visible and gave people an excuse to squish me on their terms. If I took a stand in relation to what was important to them, even in opposition I stood with them.

In my experience, violence tends to be very ordinary, very mundane. Living in situations where violence and anger and fear become a way of life tends to change us, to twist us so that our best intentions can become our shadow selves, if not obviously darkening our lives now then quietly darkening those of our children and our grandchildren. Good intentions are no guarantee that I'm helping, so for me it's important to try to work out ways that I can quickly gauge the helpfulness or unhelpfulness of what I do, in mind of the generations to come. If violence begets violence, and I wish to reduce the possibilities of violence in my life, then the logics and passions of violence are not my friend. But I think it helps to have a keen sense of how the logics and passions of violence work, otherwise, how will I recognise them in myself when there's always the chance I may be dazzled by my own good intentions?

I'm not all that keen to say what gentleness looks like. I am getting a sense of what I mean by gentleness feels like, though, and there's no way I can force that. If it's not happening it's not happening. I'm more keen to identify the ways that I take myself away from gentleness, because for me an attitude of gentleness allows me to better defend myself from harm, to become more aware of the situation in which I find myself, and to become more aware of how I might be contributing to the dynamics that I am criticising. For me gentleness is about coming to terms with the insight that Marx, among others, had, that we make our own history, but not quite as we please. That we are born into conditions and ways of thinking and behaviour that were around before we were, and that our lives are spent trying to make sense of that and trying to make sense of the ways that people try to convince us or themselves that people don't really matter all that much. Gentleness for me is about assuming that we all matter, that we all make a difference, all the time, often in the subtlest of ways, and that understanding how in more subtle ways can make us far more helpful as we play our part in particular kinds of social change. Each of us has, I believe, opportunities to really transform our lives and the lives of others, and gentleness for me is at the heart of how I think about that, a deeply political engagement, a deeply political critique, a very immediate way to think about empowerment.


  • Well spoken Anthony. As you know, I spent a lot of last year involved in a similarly toxic situation. It takes time and patience with oneself to even begin to recover one's self-esteem and to feel free to dance to the life-giving tunes around us again.
    Gentleness became for me a sort of talisman of hope, hope for the future - for the way I relate to the people in my life, and also to myself. Possibly the most difficult part, albeit the most effective - for me, has been learning to treat myself with gentleness. It is effective, and healing - in a natural way.
    This is short, but you know my present circumstances!!!

    By Blogger Brigid, at Wednesday, 27 September, 2006  

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